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Movie Review : 'Back' Gets Laughs, And Respect, Too

June 12, 1986|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

Imagine Rodney Dangerfield, America's most lovable slob, as a college freshman!

That's just what Dangerfield and a clutch of writers did, and the result is a big belly laugh of a comedy, "Back to School" (citywide Friday), sure to be cherished by all his fans.

A clever sepia collage under the opening credits charts Dangerfield's progress from his Italian immigrant father's Lower East Side tailor shop in 1940 to his current status as president of the highly profitable Tall and Fat clothing store chain.

Having dispensed with his two-timing, social-climbing second wife (Adrienne Barbeau, hilariously hard and shrill), he decides to see how his son (Keith Gordon) is doing at college. What's this? The kid didn't make a fraternity, isn't scoring with the girls, and worst of all, is only the towel boy for the diving team? And this is the son of the man who performed a Triple Lindy--have no fear, you'll find out what that is in good time--as the opening act for the diving horse on Atlantic City's Steel Pier?

What else to do but register himself and set the kid a good example. Dangerfield thinks nothing of donating a building to the business school in return for admission, or of knocking out a couple of walls in the dorm to create a luxury suite for himself and his chauffeur-sidekick (an unshaven Burt Young, described affectionately by his employer as the first generation in his family to stand on two feet). Dangerfield's first class--business, natch--becomes a delicious duel between his streetwise pragmatism and the abstract theories of his prissy prof (Paxton Whitehead). Later there's English literature, taught by Sally Kellerman, who's all insinuating slink and purr. (Clearly there's a shortage of eligible men on this campus when Whitehead starts making Dangerfield look good to the sultry, witty Kellerman.)

Expansive and uninhibited don't begin to describe Dangerfield's Thornton Melon (nee Meloni). He hits the local pub and winds up on stage, belting out "Twist and Shout" with a rock band. He throws a party in his dorm suite, hiring Oingo Boingo to entertain. But while we're reveling in the life-loving Melon's untrammeled pursuit of pleasure and in his swift demolishing of pretense in the great lowdown tradition of American burlesque comics, we're also beginning to see that the man doesn't distinguish between genuine, spontaneous generosity and using money to buy anything and everything. You're assigned a science project? You get a NASA connection to see that it's done for you. You have to do a paper on Kurt Vonnegut Jr.? You get the author to drop by to do it himself. (Kellerman of course realizes that Dangerfield didn't write it--then adds that whoever did "didn't know the first thing about Vonnegut.")

And what of the effect of the father's exuberant behavior on the son? You're just waiting for Gordon to say the inevitable, that in contrast to how he feels now, before his father's arrival he was "happy being miserable."

Not that many comedians have been as lucky as Rodney Dangerfield in getting a film tailored so knowingly to his talent, personality and blue-collar humor. Clearly, he and all those writers (including Harold Ramis, with whom he did "Caddyshack") realized that in pulling out all the stops in the creation of Melon, the guy would have to have a day of reckoning-- with his son, and with what education is all about.

Most comedies these days crassly dodge the consequences of rub-your-face-in-it boorishness and mayhem; but in confronting it, "Back to School" acquires a depth that sets off its zaniness all the more effectively. In Alan Metter, whose only previous feature was "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," he's found a director with the energy to sustain the film's vigorous physical comedy and the sensitivity to manage its darkening tone very precisely--and then zip to the movie's send 'em-home-happy finish. Dangerfield seems to be setting the film's brisk pace and flawless timing himself.

His great moment isn't, however, a funny one, but his robust, heart-felt rendition of Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into the Night," which he turns into a rousing anthem of determination.

The people with whom he has surrounded himself are just as first-rate as his material. Gordon, so good in John Carpenter's "Christine," has an intelligence and a pale, almost delicate handsomeness that makes him perfect casting for wallflowers in need of blooming. Robert Downey Jr., son of the noted underground film maker, is his bright, radical punk pal whose tastes in reading material run to "Communist Chicks in Chains." Also contributing to the fun are M. Emmet Walsh, Ned Beatty and William Zabka, Gordon's handsome (but nasty) rival for pretty Terry Farrell's affections. But the best of Dangerfield's cohorts in "Back to School" (rated PG-13 for an all-around earthiness) is Sally Kellerman, who plays off him as slyly (yet affectionately) as Mae West played off W. C. Fields in "My Little Chickadee."

'BACK TO SCHOOL' An Orion Pictures release. Executive producers Estelle Endler, Michael Endler. Producer Chuck Russell. Director Alan Metter. Screenplay Steven Kampmann and Will Porter, Peter Torokvei and Harold Ramis; from a story by Rodney Dangerfield, Greg Fields, Dennis Snee. Music Danny Elfman. Camera Thomas E. Ackerman. Production designer David L. Snyder. Costumes Durinda Wood. Second-unit director/film editor David Rawlins. Second-unit camera Frederick Moore. With Rodney Dangerfield, Sally Kellerman, Burt Young, Keith Gordon, Robert Downey Jr., Paxton Whitehead, Terry Farrell, M. Emmet Walsh, Adrienne Barbeau, William Zabka, Ned Beatty, Severn Darden, Sam Kinison, Robert Picardo, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13).

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